The U.S Army Corps of Engineers will not review the broader climate-change impacts of proposed coal export terminals in the Pacific Northwest, an agency official told Congress on Tuesday.
The much-anticipated decision was a significant victory for the supporters of three terminals in Washington and Oregon and a setback for environmentalists and state and local officials who oppose exporting coal to China.
“The corps will limit its focus on emissions to those associated with construction of the facilities,” Jennifer Moyer, acting regulatory chief for the corps told lawmakers. “The effects of burning of coal in Asia or wherever it may be is too far to affect our action.”
Moyer added that the corps also would not consider the impact of coal trains on waterways and air quality. The governors of Washington and Oregon, environmental groups and Indian tribes had demanded that the corps account for the transportation of coal from the mines to the ports in its analysis, which was required before the projects could forward.
There has been little study of how increased locomotive exhaust and coal dust would affect communities through which the rail shipments travel, a key driver of opposition.
Moyer noted in her testimony that coal had been shipped by rail from U.S. mines for export for many decades, and it was beyond the realm of the agency’s expertise to judge what increased coal shipments would mean for the region.
“We don’t control shipping by rail,” she said.
Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., the ranking member on the House of Representatives Energy and Commerce Committee and a leading environmental advocate in Congress, urged her to reconsider the decision.
“I think the corps is making a big mistake,” he said.
The hearing in the Subcommittee on Energy and Power was dominated by lawmakers from coal-producing states.
None from the states affected by the proposed ports, including Washington and Oregon, were present.
The subcommittee’s Republican chairman, Rep. Ed Whitfield, represents Kentucky, one of the nation’s leading coal producers. The state’s coal industry has been reeling from a decline in domestic coal consumption, fueled by an abundance of cheaper natural gas and stricter environmental laws.
Noting that the U.S. exported a record 126 million tons of coal in 2012, Whitfield said that overseas markets presented a “tremendous opportunity.”
“It will help decrease our trade deficit,” he said. “It will help increase the number of jobs in America.”
Rep. John Shimkus, R-Ill., who represents another coal-producing region, said the proposed terminals would be a welcome role reversal for the United States, which long relied on imported energy to meet its needs.
“Now we can say people are buying our energy,” he said. “They will send their money to us.”
But lawmakers from coastal states threatened by rising sea levels brought the discussion back to climate change.
“Coal is the single largest contributor to global warming,” said Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Fla. “With everything climate science is telling us about climate change, we should not be exporting coal.”
Others oppose the terminals because of potential community impacts. The proposed Cherry Point terminal near Bellingham, Wash., would bring 50 million tons of coal a year by rail through the state’s major population centers.
Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn said such movements would increase congestion and pollution in his city.
“We have better ways to create jobs,” he told the panel.
The corps’ decision boosted supporters of the coal terminals who have watched the number of proposed projects shrink from six to three – two in Washington and one in Oregon. It also was favorable to rail companies. Earlier this month, the Sierra Club and other environmental groups sued Burlington Northern Santa Fe, one of the nation’s largest railroads, accusing the company of polluting rivers along its coal shipment routes in the Northwest.
Lauri Hennesey, a spokeswoman for the Alliance for Northwest Jobs & Exports, a coalition of supporters, welcomed the Corps’ announcement.
“These terminals can be done right, creating thousands of good jobs,” she said in a statement.
Environmental groups said they would continue their push for a broader review. KC Golden, policy director for Climate Solutions, testified that it would be “irresponsible” not to consider the full implications of exporting coal.
"Let’s not be afraid to ask and answer the big questions," he told the committee. "These choices deserve full transparency and accountability.”